Obama phones Raul Castro in advance of summit

President Obama and Cuban president Raúl Castro exchanged pleasantries in a phone call last night prior to Obama boarding a plane for Panama, where he will take part in the Summit of the Americas.

The two leaders will share the stage with other hemispheric leaders at the opening ceremonies and will probably meet unofficially during the course of the summit.


The rapprochement is set to dominate the Summit of the Americas meeting, held in Panama, less than four months after they announced they would seek to lower tensions and boost trade and travel between the two Cold War enemies.

Obama and Castro spoke by phone on Wednesday before the U.S. leader left Washington, a White House official said. They have separate agendas for most of the day but will both attend the start of the summit along with other regional leaders on Friday evening.

Apart from a couple of brief, informal encounters, the leaders of the United States andCuba have not had any significant meetings since Castro's older brother Fidel Castro toppled U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in a 1959 revolution.

But the two countries' top diplomats - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez - held talks at a Panama City hotel on Thursday night, the first meeting of its kind since the United States' John Foster Dulles and Cuba's Gonzalo Guell got together in Washington in 1958.

Sitting face-to-face in a room visible through a large glass window, Kerry and Rodriguez talked for over two hours. A senior U.S. State Department official described it as a "lengthy and very constructive discussion" and said they made progress.

Obama appears to be close to removing Cuba from the U.S. list of countries that it says sponsor terrorism. Cuba's inclusion on the list has exacerbated tensions and made it harder for U.S. companies to do business with Cuba.

The State Department has now recommended that Cuba be taken off the list, a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee aide said on Thursday.

Obama is expected to agree, although it is not clear whether he will announce his decision during the summit.

A U.S. official said Kerry and Rodriguez used their meeting to smooth the way for Cuba's removal from the list. The United States has pushed for Cuban assurances of no future support for terrorism, and Cuba has made the same demand of Washington.

How much are those "assurances" worth?  Cuba harbors several notorious terrorists, including some American "revolutionaries" wanted for murder in the U.S.  Isn't harboring terrorists the same as supporting terrorism?  Leave it to the Obama administration to parse the difference.

The benefits of normalizing relations comes just in time for the faltering Castro regime.  The move will cut the legs from underneath the Cuban dissident movement, as Castro has shown no let-up in his crackdown on those seeking freedom.  And the Cuban economy was in danger of collapsing until the move by Obama to normalize relations.

I hope Castro has words of thanks for the president when they meet, as Obama probably saved the regime.